CalTax Commentary: What Los Angeles County’s ‘Educational’ Materials Won’t Tell You About Measure FD

Los Angeles Cityscape Sunset Feature

Robert GutierrezBy CalTax President Robert Gutierrez

This commentary was published this week in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News, Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Torrance Daily Breeze and Whittier Daily News.

Los Angeles County officials are doing what they always do when county-sponsored tax increases are on the ballot – using your tax dollars to campaign for the tax hike under the fiction that they are just trying to educate voters.

The County Fire Department’s “impartial” slideshow on Measure FD, the property tax increase on the March ballot, includes little more than campaign talking points written by political consultants to encourage a “yes” vote. There isn’t a single word about how the tax would increase housing costs and retail prices during the midst of an affordability crisis.

The “educational” materials also fail to mention that the tax has no expiration date, lacks an impartial appeals process and has a senior exemption that is narrower than most.

This shouldn’t be taken as criticism of the firefighters and paramedics who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all. Firefighting and paramedic services are vital, and require tax dollars. This doesn’t mean, however, that every new tax is necessary, nor that every tax increase supported by the Fire Department is a good idea.

After studying the pros and the cons, the California Taxpayers Association opposes Measure FD.

Measure FD would make it more expensive to buy or rent a home or business. It also would increase the cost of utilities, including electricity, telephone and Internet service. Those are deal-breakers. Adding to the financial strain of people living here, especially those already teetering on the edge of homelessness, would be irresponsible.

There are many other problems with this poorly drafted measure that was rushed onto the ballot without fully being vetted. For example, Measure FD would allow the fire chief to develop procedures for the senior exemption and the appeals process – a huge conflict of interest.

Appeals would be limited to mathematical errors in calculation of the tax or “significant discrepancies” over the square footage of improvements. The measure doesn’t define what a “significant discrepancy” is, so this presumably would be at the fire chief’s discretion.

Who would hear the appeals? Would it be a district employee? The measure doesn’t specify, so there’s no way for voters to know if the process would be fair and impartial.

Since the measure includes a vague definition of “improvements,” the problems with the appeals process are no small matter. Measure FD defines improvements as “structures under a roof,” but does not specify what constitutes a roof. Would a doghouse on a property be subject to the tax? Would a multistory building be deemed to have multiple roofs or one, and how would that change the tax? Other property-related improvements that intrinsically increase the value of a property – such as a swimming pool, tennis or basketball court or an uncovered patio – would not be subject to the tax.

The tax would increase up to 2 percent every year, compounding over time with no end. Since the county wouldn’t have to periodically answer to the voters, accountability would be lost – the money would keep flowing regardless of audits or media reports that uncover waste or misuse of tax dollars.

Additionally, the tax would discriminate by requiring some taxpayers to pay significantly more than others based solely on the square footage of “improvements” – not ability to pay, property value, etc. Vacant lots would not be subject to the tax, but lots with homes or apartments would face new taxes.

The proposed tax increase comes at a time when county revenue has increased more than 33 percent just since 2015, thanks largely to windfalls from current property taxes. County revenue for 2019-20 was $9 billion higher than in 2015-16, so top-priority services should be receiving funds.

Measure FD was rushed to the ballot without public input, and it shows. The measure lacks taxpayer safeguards, raises fairness concerns and would make Los Angeles even less affordable. Voters should reject this deeply flawed measure. Vote NO on Measure FD.